Thursday, April 1, 2010

Too Purple

I've been resisting going with this idea because of the potential to piss people I actually like off, but this month's National Geographic rekindled my concern. But first, some self-effacing preamble.

As a lass, I had dreams of the stage. Some of which I experimented with on small, school-sized stages. Except there was a small problem which became more obvious with the passing years: I wasn't any good. I was a pretty crap actress. Mostly because I wasn't acting. I was saying the lines, properly inflected, properly emotive, but as I, Yelena, would say them. Instead of getting into the character's head, I let the character get into mine: this is what Yelena would do if in this situation - who cares what Juliet or Blanche or Antigone would do? Obviously this was a major fail. So I stopped acting because I realized it wasn't in my makeup.

But now we get into trickier waters. For a time, I wrote. In high school, in college, and a little bit beyond. But I ran into a similar problem. I just wasn't any good at fabricating a tone that wasn't my own. What this meant was a) whether set in ancient Sumer or a diner in Queens, the people sounded the same; b) when I deviated from my own tone, the piece sucked; and c) the best pieces I wrote were stream of consciousness ones where the voice clearly belonged to me. Now, I've read my Wikipedia, and sadly I cannot blame this on Narcissistic Personality Disorder which, I am loathe to admit, I do not have, but using a voice not my own results in inauthentic sounding prose.

And yet, I know writers, my friends among them, who are able to fabricate not only characters and situations, but voices. So this is a personal fail.

Or is it?

You see, this month, National Geographic asked a famous author, Barbara Kingsolver, to pen a piece on water (the theme of the issue). I am a cover-to-cover National Geographic reader - I love the magazine - and I stopped reading this piece after the third paragraph. Want to know why? Because this wasn't her fiction (which I have tried and which is not bad), this was essentially an opinion piece, and I couldn't believe in any way shape or form that, in normal conversation, Barbara Kingsolver would say that 'water is the briny broth of life.' Cause real people don't talk like that. And in that moment, I didn't like the author, I didn't like National Geographic's editors for not saying, "come on, Babs, get real," and I didn't like that those kinds of clever turns of phrase are considered deep and meaningful. Take away the word 'briny' and it becomes better; take away the word 'broth' as well (and the of and the) and you have what the author MEANT TO SAY: Water is Life! Which, let's face it, is, kind of duh. Also, it makes me think of Dune.

I did not like Hemingway when we first met, but I am seriously considering giving him another shot simply because here is a man who is not so slutty about his adjectives. There is a difference, to my mind, between 'it was a humid day' and 'all day long she had humid thoughts.' Note to the latter: no she didn't! People don't have humid thoughts. No sane person has ever said to herself, "gee, my thoughts are humid right now," so I take exception to having to read the line in print.

I'm reconsidering how I evaluate books in this light and am concerned about rereading some of my favorites if, in fact, my tastes have changed over the years. Now maybe part of this is my discomfort with the discipline of crafting words as opposed to merely typing them (and I have a notorious laxity vis a vis editing - in case you couldn't tell), but I doubt it's the whole story. I think maybe I'm just becoming less comfortable with all manner of bullshit and the briny broth of life was the last (brittle) straw.

Yet, I will acknowledge the following: it is possible that while Barbara Kingsolver's shtick is stupid and unnecessary adjectives that purport to make simple statements sound profound, my shtick is vocally not having a shtick.

It's possible.

1 comment:

  1. I think Barbara Kingsolver is kinda not so great. I remember, from when--as a youngster--I tore through her young-woman-in-the-southwest series for the sex scenes, tons of inconsistencies and tackiness. Sounds like someone who would write about the briny froth of life. Blech.